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Even fruit flies think before they act: first evidence of consciousness fragments in insects


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(NaturalNews) Are some insects smart enough to make conscious decisions in a way similar to humans? New research published in the journal Science suggests so, having found that the common fruit fly possesses a special gene that allows it to think before it acts rather than just engage in pre-programmed, instinctual behaviors.

Scientists from Oxford University in the U.K. learned this after observing the behaviors of fruit flies in a controlled environment. Having been trained to avoid a certain odor at a specific concentration, the flies were presented with varying concentrations of that odor along with other odors at select intervals.

According to Daily Digest News, the flies were quick to make decisions, almost without thinking, when the odor concentrations were very distinct -- that is, when they were easy to differentiate from one another. But when the odors were concentrated similarly, the flies seemed to concentrate more, taking much longer to make a decision.

"Freedom of action from automatic impulses is considered a hallmark of cognition or intelligence," stated professor Gero Miesenbock, one of the authors of the study. "What our findings show is that fruit flies have a surprising mental capacity that has previously been unrecognized."

The key, say researchers, is a gene known as FoxP that guides how fruit flies make decisions. The expression of the FoxP gene in fruit flies appears to mimic that of human genes in terms of how it aids in the decision-making process, and researchers say mathematical models designed to pattern how humans make decisions also apply to fruit flies.

"Before a decision is made, brain circuits collect information like a bucket collects water," added Dr. Shamik DasGupta, lead author of the study. "Once the accumulated information has risen to a certain level, the decision is triggered."

Interestingly, fruit flies with mutations in FoxP were found to spend even more time contemplating their decisions than fruit flies with normal gene expression. This suggests that the FoxP gene is pivotal in regulating the free will behaviors of fruit flies, which are impeded when the gene is not functioning normally.

"When FoxP is defective, either the flow of information into the bucket is reduced to a trickle, or the bucket has sprung a leak," added Dr. DasGupta.

Fruit flies capable of expressing free will, determines related study

Earlier research out of Free University Berlin observed similar abilities in fruit flies that were glued down to identical copper hooks in a completely uniform white environment. The flies were free to bat their wings and try to escape, and it was during this time that researchers noticed unique behavior that was far from random.

A 2007 report by NBC News' LiveScience explains that the behavior of the flies coincided with a mathematical algorithm known as Levy's distribution, which is commonly observed in nature. Like mammals and other animals, fruit flies strategically plan ways to obtain food and avoid predators, and their behaviors are variant even within the same types of environments.

"These strategies in flies appear to arise spontaneously and do not result from outside cues," explained NBC News about this earlier study, which was published online in the journal PLoS One. "This make their behavior seem to lie somewhere between completely random and purely determined, and could form the biological foundation for what we experience as free will,'" adds the report, citing the words of mathematical biologist George Sugihara.

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